Julian Barnes

When He Sat Down His Tongue Came Out

The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin


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‘Gloomy old sod, aren’t I,’ Philip Larkin remarked to his friend Judy Egerton at the end of a letter routinely predicting social and political apocalypse. Yes you are, and pretty often, we might conclude, after spending 700 pages and forty-five years in his intimate, evasive company. But also funny old sod, clever old sod, wise old sod, foul-mouthed old sod, tender old sod, bitchy old sod, moving old sod. Heliotropic old sod, too, in that he turned his face to show each friend that part of him which pleased them most. Pernickety old sod, especially when it came to scouring publishers’ contracts for the sub-sub-clause which gave them the right to screw him. But never – despite a sedentary, deskbound, bachelor life – never boring old sod.

Yet also, and always, Larkinish old sod. Of course, character depends on memory, and we tend to remember those things which endorse our particular view of ourselves and the universe; even so, consider this moment when, just before his thirty-seventh birthday, the poet makes a rare raid on that ‘forgotten boredom’, his childhood. His earliest toys, he recalls, were a teddy bear, a dog called Rags, and a rabbit, ‘but only the last named meant anything to me. It sat on the dining table at meals, until one day it fell with its ears into the mint sauce. It was hung out many days to sweeten, and washed and scented, but I never felt the same about it.’ The episode is incorrigibly Larkinish, a tiny comedy about the fragility of things, irreparable loss, and Englishness. Somehow it had to be mint sauce rather than, say, Dijon mustard, into which the beloved’s ears were dunked.

In the very first letter collected here, the eighteen-year-old Larkin reports a visit to Lichfield, where many of his forebears were buried. ‘I gave them a quick glance yesterday. One stone said, “In loving remembrance of Philip Larkin. In the midst of life we are in death.” Major think. I reeled away conscious of a desire to vomit into a homburg hat.’ The tone is forcefully set: broad comic revulsion, swingeing lack of reverence, timor mortis. Throughout his life he hated not just death but most of the lesser rites of passage: Christmas, holidays, family gatherings, unnecessary social events. ‘As regards the evening, just as you like,’ he writes in advance to his host C B Cox in 1969. ‘A little drinking and company would be very nice, but if one of them has to go let it be the company.’ He hated ‘filthy abroad’ (visiting it only twice in his adult life) but also railed against England as ‘an impossible place’. ‘Balls to the war,’ he declared unpatriotically in 1940, ‘Balls to a good many things, events, people, and institutions.’ He hated most things to do with his house, and especially his garden, on which he made comical onslaughts of dubious efficacy. He hated ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’ and Donald Davie. He also regularly and reliably hated someone he describes as ‘a corpse eaten out with envy, impotence, failure, envy, boredom, sloth, snobbery, envy, fear, baldness, bad circulation, bitterness, bittiness, envy, sycophancy, deceit, nostalgia, et cetera …’ This, naturally, is Larkin himself.

At first the browser’s eye will probably be caught by the gleeful literary denunciations which stud these pages. Anthony Powell is a ‘horse-faced dwarf’, David Wright a ‘deaf cunt’, Craig Raine a ‘mad sod’, W D Snodgrass a ‘dopy kid-mad sod’, Frank Kermode a ‘jumped-up book drunk ponce’; Ian Hamilton is ‘the Kerensky of poetry’, Anthony Burgess ‘the Batman of contemporary letters’, R S Thomas ‘not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort’. (Needless to say, these sods, cunts and dwarfs mostly have a sense of humour, or truth, or at least forbearance, since the publishers had to clear the tastier vilifications with the said sods, cunts and dwarfs). Arts-desk snippet-writers inevitably picked up on this aspect of the Letters, and pre-publication articles expressed shock and jaunty Schadenfreude at Larkin’s bad-mouthing of colleagues. Look what an uncharitable old sod he was, listen to him bitching about other poets behind their backs. We thought he was a sort of successor to jolly old John Betjers, and here he is, just as bald but not half as nice. Gosh, look at the crabby old librarian putting the boot in! Much of this response comes from a lingering sentimental desire for artists to be better than other people. They may occasionally be other things, like more intelligent or more sensitive or more sympathetic; but the only real way in which writers are better than other people is that they are better at writing. In any case, few who have lived with Larkin’s poems (plus the posthumous additions to the canon) will be very surprised by the supposed ‘revelations’ of these Letters. Instead they will be enthralled, entertained and saddened; grateful, too, that we have not been forced to go through some period of a sanitised Larkin before hearing his true epistolary voice. ‘Publishing a book is like farting at a party – you have to wait till people stop looking at you before you can behave normally again.’ ‘I went to The Nudist Story tonight, which is the sort of thing I do when alone. It confirmed my impression that bad films aren’t so bad when the characters haven’t any clothes on.’ ‘My great sagging belly … is beginning to arouse public comment. None of my clothes fit either: when I sit down my tongue comes out.’

Though other writers – Robert Conquest, John Wain, Richard Murphy – feature regularly in the Letters, the focusing literary relationship here is with Kingsley Amis. They met at Oxford, where their friendship was fuelled by jokes, drink, jazz, and a vivid boredom with chunks of the English syllabus. Larkin was to be the novelist, Amis the poet, until they found that the wiring was reversed. After two novels, fiction abandoned Larkin, just as poetry was later to give him up; Amis instead became the novelist, as well as a poet whose qualities Larkin unjealously applauded. (Perhaps Larkin is harder on his friend’s fiction – especially on Amis’s indulgent attitude to male protagonists – because of his own abandoned ambitions.) After Oxford, their temperaments and their lives diverged, with Larkin playing country mouse to Amis’s town mouse. Amis was more social and peripatetic, Larkin more solitary and site-specific; Amis a public success, Larkin a word-of-mouth enthusiasm until comparatively late.

Larkin thought marriage ‘a marvellous idea for other people, like going to the stake’, and giving yourself to another person ‘like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one’s life’; his theme song was Empty Bed Blues. Amis married twice, and failed to abide by the poet’s injunction to ‘Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself’. Larkin was a refuser, or at best an awkward acceptant, of life’s experiences, predicting disappointment and looking back with regret; Amis seems to have represented a wholeheartedness of which Larkin judged himself incapable – the posthumously published ‘Letter to a Friend About Girls’, signed ‘Horatio’ and therefore written to Hamlet, might equally have been signed P L and written to K A. It was the town mouse who landed the women, the obvious fame, and the new habits that money brought: ‘[Bruce Montgomery and Kingsley] have left double gins now & gone onto champagne cocktails, & sign the cheque at the end of the session, no sordid passing of money,’ Larkin notes in August 1957. Meanwhile, in Hull: ‘I am getting more of an alcoholic: I sit half-stewed each night, while the leaves rustle outside, & the LP platters steadily work their way down the spindle.’ Leaving metropolitans to swig cocktails, Larkin describes his reasons for liking spaghetti: ‘You don’t have to take yr eyes off the book to pick about among it, it’s all the same.’ Of course, this mousiness shouldn’t be exaggerated. Just as Larkin’s stance of aesthetic plain-mannery might not prepare us for the deftness and sophistication of his work, so the ‘bald, deaf, bicycle-clipped’ provincial of his self-mythology also had a snappier, dressier side. There are far more sartorial annotations than you would expect in these letters. Larkin valued Hardy Amies as well as Kingsley Amis. In 1963, for instance, he announced to Barbara Pym, ‘I have bought a Panama hat, with a black ribbon, for 32/6 – sufficient to send the sun behind an infinity of cloud, where it looks like remaining.’ This sentence is another portmanteau of Larkinry: the aspiration to dandyism, the mean sod’s expense-jotting, and the anticipation of disappointment.

Amis and Larkin met infrequently in later years. ‘I don’t see Kingsley these days except in advertisements for Sanderson’s fabrics,’ Larkin writes in 1975 after the novelist and his then wife Elizabeth Jane Howard jointly endorsed chintz. Eight years later came the already much-quoted line to Robert Conquest: ‘The only reason I hope to predecease him [Amis] is that I’d find it next to impossible to say anything nice about him at his memorial service.’ This is said, however, a) in response to Amis’s failure to commiserate with Larkin over Monica Jones’s serious illness; and b) with the immediate qualification ‘What a nasty thing to say, but you know what I mean. He probably thinks the same about me.’ (In fact, when Larkin died, Amis paid warm and handsome remembrance to ‘my best friend’.) In the wider context, such barbs must be set against Larkin’s own continual and ruthless self-assessment. As Amis wrote in his obituarial tribute, Larkin ‘extended to himself that sometimes frightening honesty which marked all his dealings with the world’. He was hard on his own character, satirical about his appearance (‘an egg sculpted with lard’, ‘as much expression as a lump of sugar’) and dismissive of his own work. He called himself an ‘A E Housman without the talent, or the scholarship, or the soft job, or the curious private life’. Much praise came his way, but ‘when will people realize that this is a dead era for writing, like 1500–1580?’

It seems too easy to call him a depressive – something that might be changed by a handful of pills, a foreign holiday, a kick up the arse. He was perhaps that classier thing, a genuine melancholic, one made so by feeling intensely the transience, the thinness, the futility and injustice of life. ‘It isn’t fair,’ he moans on reaching only his thirty-second birthday, and the complaint deepens as the years proceed. ‘I never expected much of life,’ he writes in 1977, ‘but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.’ Quite how the cocky, aggressive, ebullient Larkin of the early letters fell into such neck-deep melancholy (something to do with the death of his father in 1948 and his concurrent drawing-back from marriage, one would guess) may be explained in Andrew Motion’s forthcoming biography. Of course, the melancholy was fundamental to the mature poetry, so for many years it perversely justified itself. But what happens when your art fails you? ‘In the old days depression wasn’t so bad because I could write about it; now writing has left me, and only the depression remains.’ In one of his last letters, comforting a friend who feared she might be going mad, he wrote, ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with being depressed; it’s just a natural response to adverse circumstances.’ In Larkin’s case, the ‘adverse circumstances’ were the very fact and conditions of existence.

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